The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco recently acquired an extremely rare painting that hasn’t been on display to the public in centuries. Psyche Bidding Her Family Farewell is a groundbreaking work by French artist Marie-Guillemine Benoist, now on display at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor in Gallery 16.
For 231 years, the painting has been hidden away in a private collection. It’s now one of only three paintings by the artist shown in public collections in the United States, and is significant for being the first history painting by a woman displayed at the Royal Academy of Arts’ Salon exhibition in 1791. In a period when most women painters were relegated to creating still life or portraits, which were considered intellectually inferior, this painting was a sensation.
History painting was generally considered to be a male field, as it required the artist to showcase their “powers of invention” in producing scenes from literature, mythology, history, or the Bible. The Royal Academy’s official exhibition catalogue from the 1791 Salon states, “I thought that women were hardly capable of composing history paintings, above all to this degree of perfection.”
Psyche Bidding Her Family Farewell is a scene from the story of Cupid and Psyche by Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis. It depicts the princess Psyche bading her family farewell as they are forced to sacrifice her to a monstrous creature in order to save her father’s kingdom. The romance of Cupid and Psyche inspired many nude paintings created by Benoist’s male colleagues, and her decision to depict a more unusual chapter in the story is significant in its own right.
The public display of this painting is made possible thanks to patrons John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn; Phoebe Cowles and Robert Girard; Margaret and William R. Hearst III; Diane B. Wilsey; Barbara A. Wolfe; The Jay and Clara McEvoy Trust; The Michael Taylor Trust; The Margaret Oakes Endowment Income Fund; The Harris Family; Ariane and Lionel Sauvage; and an anonymous donor.
“We extend our gratitude to the group of patrons who stepped forward to enable this acquisition, which will substantially enrich the story that we tell about the Neoclassical movement and the Revolutionary period in our galleries, where it will join paintings by Benoist’s mentors Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun and Jacques-Louis David,” said Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
“Having remained with the descendants of its first owner for over 200 years, the painting is magnificently preserved, allowing us to appreciate Benoist’s exquisite attention to detail. Note the tears that glisten on the queen’s cheek, the gleaming tendrils of Psyche’s hair, the flutter and weight of her draperies, the glow of pearls against flesh,” said Emily Beeny, Curator in Charge of European Paintings.
You can see Psyche Bidding Her Family Farewell in Gallery 16 at the Legion of Honor, located at Lincoln Park, 100 34th Avenue in San Francisco. The Legion of Honor offers free admission days for the public on the first Tuesday of every month and for Bay Area residents every Saturday.
Featured image: Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Psyche Bidding Her Family Farewell, 1791. Oil on canvas, 43 3/4 x 57 1/8 in. (111 x 145 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn; Phoebe Cowles and Robert Girard; Margaret and William R. Hearst III; Diane B. Wilsey; Barbara A. Wolfe; The Jay and Clara McEvoy Trust; The Michael Taylor Trust; The Margaret Oakes Endowment Income Fund; The Harris Family; Ariane and Lionel Sauvage; and an anonymous donor, 2022. Photograph by Randy Dodson. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.